Tuesday, September 3, 2019

Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, Site of John Brown’s Raid of 1859 – A Century and a Half Later

What tourists in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia get to see is all about the Civil War battle that took place in 1862, and very little about John Browns raid of 1859, a much more significant and meaningful event.

John Brown’s raid was a momentous occurrence because, unlike what US historiography long maintained, it was not a half-baked scheme but rather a well thought out plan to arm the slave population to confront their oppressors. It could have worked, particularly because the U.S. army armory in Harpers Ferry was so well supplied. It also demonstrated the bravery and determination of some northerners – not only Brown who was white, but many in the African American community in the north who sympathized with him – to oppose and fight against social injustice. The raid sent shock waves throughout the south and undoubtedly scared some members of the northern elite as well.

The audio on the bus from the parking lot to the town was all about the town’s history and the civil war; the only reference to John Brown was to call his raid a "desperate action." The walking tour guide was very knowledgeable and entertaining (an A rating on that score) but his narrative was focused on the Civil War battle which illuminated the military genius of the south’s two outstanding generals, Robert E. Lee and “Stonewall” Jackson. When the guide entered the fire engine house where Brown was captured by Lee, he just mentioned Brown passingly. The most disappointing aspect was that the armory which Brown attacked was subsequently destroyed and never reconstructed.

One of the few references to John Brown’s raid cast it in a negative light. It’s in memory of a victim of the raid, an employee of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad Co. who happened to be African American. The message: Far from helping African Americans, John Brown’s raid inflicted harm on them and here is the proof.  

One of the plaques presents both sides of the story. On the one hand, the statement by the United Daughters of the Confederacy that “the people of the South who owned slaves valued and respected their qualities” more so than did any other class. On the other hand, the statement by the famed African American historian W.E.B. Du Bois (who later joined the Communist Party) who vindicated John Brown’s actions.

This reminds me of what they taught me in grade school. That there were good slaveholders and bad ones. The implication being that slavery wasn’t that bad after all. Must we give equal time to those who perpetuate nefarious actions?


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